By Kristen M. Daum
The scope and strength of Michigan’s state employee unions is wholly dependent on the size of state government.
So as state government has shrunk in recent years, it’s no wonder the unions felt an equally sizable blow.
A Lansing State Journal analysis of union tax forms and labor reports shows that since at least 2009, all seven unions representing state employees have lost members and annual revenue, often by double-digit percentages.
One union — the Michigan State Police Troopers Association — has added members and is somewhat optimistic, but in general, the other state employee unions don’t foresee any rebounds on the horizon.
“It’s the new normal,” said Ray Holman, spokesman for United Auto Workers Local 6000, the largest state employee union with more than 15,000 members.
“It’s not as desperate as it once was,” Holman said, but “losing members means losing our influence.”
A history of decline
Most of the union leaders link their deteriorated situations directly to Michigan’s economic troubles and government leaders’ decisions to cut back.
“The downsizing of state government has a direct effect on our financials and our membership counts,” said Ken Moore, president of the Michigan State Employees Association. “We have to do more with less.”
Phillip Patrick, executive director for Michigan Public Employees, agrees.
“We’ve had to struggle through with the new approach to downsizing government,” Patrick said.
Cuts in the state employee workforce span several Michigan governors, Republican and Democrat alike.
Michigan’s state workforce peaked in 1980 with about 70,000 employees. It now employs about 49,250, a decline reflecting Michigan’s budget deficits over the years.
As the number of state employees fell, so did union memberships in the seven groups that represent most of them.
About 71 percent of all state employees — or 35,000 workers — are represented by a union.
According to documents analyzed by the Lansing State Journal, between about 2009 and 2011, the state cut 4,400 workers. Simultaneously, these seven state employee unions lost as many as 3,500 members, state and union records show. Union tax forms for fiscal year 2012 have not yet been filed.
Members of these state worker unions pay, on average, about $50 a month in dues. Fewer members inherently meant less income for the unions and fewer dollars to pay for member services.
Between 2009 and 2011, revenue from dues across the seven unions dropped by more than $1 million. The combined net assets of the unions were $5.8 million in 2011.
In general, the organizations are financially sound, if smaller. However, AFSCMECouncil 25, in its latest tax filing, reported a debt of $3 million. Three years prior, the union reported assets of $1.9 million. The union’s tax filings indicate the debt came, in part, from post-retirement benefits, a sizable liability that has increased by more than $4 million between 2009 and 2011.
To cope with the loss of membership and declining revenue, most state employeeunions are seeking greater efficiency and collaboration.
Previously, the unions joined together to increase their bargaining power. Now, the Coalition of State Employee Unions — formed by the UAW, Michigan Public Employees, AFSCME Council 25, the Michigan Corrections Organization and the Michigan State Employees Association — is working to find operating efficiencies.
In particular, the unions joined together to sue the state and overturn a mandate that state employees contribute 4 percent to their pensions.
“That worked out very well,” Moore said, because it saved money for each of the unions.
At the end of September, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk ruled in favor of the unions in that lawsuit, declaring the mandatory contribution unconstitutional. However, because the Attorney General’s office has appealed the decision, the 4-percent deduction will remain in effect until the court case is fully resolved.
Independently, each of the unions also has reduced its staff.
Records show both the MSEA and Michigan Public Employees cut more than a quarter of their staff between 2009 and 2011, the most of all the state employees unions.
MSEA went from 16 employees in 2009 to 10 employees last year. Michigan Public Employees had 24 people on staff three years ago and reported 18 employees in 2011.
“We’ve been very stringent in our budgeting, and we’ve been able to be as conservative as we can going forward,” said Patrick of the MPE.
“Being a state worker has become more intense,” said Holman of UAW 6000. “Problems arise and people get into tricky situations. ... It’s a challenge for the union because there are more incidents of extreme situations, and we have to get involved.”
Holman cited examples of where some union members who work as case workers in child protection or probation have reportedly had knives or guns pulled on them.
“The demand for state services skyrocketed,” Holman said, “and we’ve got a skeleton crew trying to deal with more work than ever.”
To address the growing work demands — and in the interest of job security, too — union leaders want to reduce waste and improve efficiency in state government. They hope the state will hire more workers and improve working conditions if it has more money.
“We don’t want to go to blows with administrators when we know the state has been cash-strapped,” Patrick said. “We think work can be done more efficiently, with more experienced individuals, rather than them taking portions of those processes and contracting them out.”
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is enthusiastically on board with the joint effort to improve efficiency. Snyder has used an interactive tool called “Bureaucracy Busters” to encourage state workers to suggest ways the state can improve operations.
“We want to start empowering our employees again,” Snyder said during a visit last month with the Lansing State Journal Editorial Board.
On the defensive
Nonetheless, both Patrick and Holman voiced concerns about government leaders’ desire to diminish union rights, and they said their reduced numbers could make them more vulnerable to such political attacks.
“Our strength is our members,” Holman said.
“We’re seeing attacks on bargaining rights. ... it’s a plan to bust unions through privatization,” Holman said in reference to some state leaders’ desire to contract out state services to private companies.
The unions’ argument is particularly timely this fall, with three union-related proposals on Tuesday’s ballot.
Proposal 1 would authorize the governor to appoint emergency managers to act in place of local government officials.
With Proposal 2, voters will decide whether to amend Michigan’s Constitution to make collective bargaining a constitutional right for all workers in the state.
Similarly, Proposal 4 would amend the constitution to give in-home health care workers collective bargaining rights.
The ranks of the state employee workforce have fluctuated slightly since Snyder took office January 2011. Some departments have grown; others have shrunk. But Snyder emphasized there’s been “no systematic cutting of state employees.”
“It really depends on the area,” Snyder said.
About 400 people were laid off this fall from the Unemployment Insurance Agency, Snyder said, “but that was a function of having a lot less claims.”
On the flip side, “we’ve added hundreds in the child services area, because that was a priority area,” he said.
“We need the right people in the right place,” Snyder said. “I think that’s something I hope people appreciate should always go on in thoughtful government.”
Snyder said last month that his administration had increased the state workforce by a net of about 100 jobs since he took office.
However, official state workforce reports show there’s actually been a net decline of nearly 1,000 state employees during that time.
According to the reports, published by the Michigan Civil Service Commission, 50,228 people worked for the state of Michigan by the end of 2010. As of mid-October 2012, the state employed 49,255 people.
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Despite cuts, some unions give raises to top executives
Even as the seven state employee unions cut administrative costs, a few of them continued to give salary increases to their top executives, a Lansing State Journal analysis of union tax records showed.
The biggest percentage increase went for salaries to presidents of the Michigan State Employees Association.
Compared to the 2009 salary of President Scott Dianda, records show 2011 (and current) President Ken Moore’s annual salary increased by 8 percent, or about $1,700 over the three years.
Moore was paid a salary of $24,000 in 2011. Phillip Thompson, former executive vice president of Michigan Public Employees, received a 4 percent raise between 2009 and 2011, boosting his six-figure salary by $5,300 to $154,400.
Of the three unions that reduced their top executives’ pay, Michigan Corrections Organization executive director Mel Grieshaber took the biggest hit.
Records show Grieshaber’s salary dropped 19 percent — or $25,700 — over the three-year period, down to $109,600.
The top executives with the Michigan State Police Troopers Association and AFSCME Council 25 also had salaries reduced, both by 2 percent, during the same period.
New hires help strengthen MSPTA
When members of the Michigan State Police Troopers Association were negotiating their contract last winter, they knew they’d have to sacrifice if they wanted to gain in the long run.
Trooper Steve Escott was one of many union members who accepted a pay cut in exchange for Gov. Rick Snyder’s promise to hire more troopers.
When fulfilled, Snyder’s promise would not only mean better public safety services, but it also could mean a turning point for the MSPTA, which — like all of the state employee unions — had suffered its share of decline in recent years.
As troopers retired and vacancies weren’t filled, MSPTA’s membership fell.
“We realized that we were in need of more troopers, more help, so we all sacrificed,” said Escott, an MSPTA member who’s been with the state police for 23 years.
Now, nearly a year after the negotiations, Escott acknowledges he might have gained more than most from the concession.
His son, Jacob, was among the graduating class of 78 recruits who joined the ranks of the Michigan State Police last month.
“I’m a very proud dad,” Escott said, following the ceremony.
More troopers in the field means good news for MSPTA’s membership. It also makes MSPTA the bright spot among the bloc of seven state employee unions, which otherwise typically represent workers across various departments and don’t foresee much growth in their numbers.
Besides MSPTA, the Michigan Corrections Organization is the only other state employees union that represents — and depends on — only one department’s employees.
The MSPTA’s membership could continue to grow next year, too.
The Michigan State Police kicked off its latest training academy last week, with 114 recruits seeking to become troopers next spring.